Over the years, between feedback from critique groups/beta readers/editors, various workshops, and personal habits I’ve realized, I have gathered a checklist of self-editing items about a mile long.
While I keep my checklist in mind while writing/drafting, I don’t focus on it. My last step before sending to beta readers/editors, is to run through my checklist. Where it works, I do a search and replace for words/phrases. I replace them with a highlighted version, so that as I read through, items that need a good look jump out at me. That way I don’t get through an entire chapter and realize I forgot to search for the word “that” or whatever I missed. I’m not super strict about what I fine-tune, only changing things if I feel it improves the writing/adds to the reader’s experience.
Curious what I fine-tune? Here’s my checklist in all its glory. Like I said, this is an amalgamation of various points of feedback/learning as well as bad habits I know I tend towards or areas I’m concentrating on improving.
1. Particular focus on first few chapters
- Don’t introduce your hero/heroine (or most any other character) using their full name – work it in more organically
- Don’t “state” relationships. “His friend, Dale” – work it in more organically
- Work in backstory organically (no long paragraphs of it – don’t mention it at all if can be avoided)
2. Add in more…
- Senses – all 5 senses per every 5 pages
- Clothing descriptions
- Setting descriptions
- Details about the world (see additional checklist) for the big stuff, remember to add in the “little” details:
- How’d it start / history
- Roads / Buildings / Utilities (how , why, use)
- use of technology
- Social services
- Social nuances/meanings/habits/expectations
- Languages, slang, special words
- How people earn a living /work
- Foods – what do they eat? How do they get food?
- What they do for fun
- How they dress
- What the people are like
- Physical descriptions
- Personality traits
- Difference between groups (races, sexes, hierarchy, etc.)
3. Highlight and change/fix/delete as you go (only where it improves the writing)
- Passive-voice signals and can make these more active/interesting verbs
- Words that don’t add much
- and then
- Words I use way too much
- Weak words
- Somewhat, somehow
- Seem, seemed, seemingly
- Be verbs that can be much stronger or paired with stronger nouns
- it is
- there were
- it was
- there was
- Adverbs – use sparingly and only where not using it will tie your sentence into knots
- Ok vs. okay
- Alright vs. All right
- Starting sentences with And or But
- -ing verbs and modifiers – make sure they aren’t overused and make sense (and avoiding passive voice)
- Are my characters doing too much with their eyes?
- Are their eyes (instead of gazes) doing impossible physical feats?
- Do I describe the color of the eyes every time?
4. Read through the chapter & look for
- My habits:
- Sprinkle physical descriptions in there – and TRY to make organic
- Watch for talking heads
- Eliminate most if not all dialogue tags prior to the dialogue
- If you use a $1.00 word, only get to use it once in the book unless it’s part of a character’s trait
- Try not to double up (2 or more for one noun)
- Use “sparingly”
- Sentence length
- Watch for choppy sentences.
- Watch for passages with lots of blank space or no blank space in a row to indicate too much dialogue or too much narrative
- Use he/she instead of their names in the narrative if there’s only one or two there. Don’t need to insert their names so much
- Cut out the small prepositions (She got off
ofthe horse. She backed upagainst a wall)
- Cut out redundant word (ex):
- heart pounded
in her/his chest
- crossed her arms
over her chest
- heart pounded
- Dialogue tags
- Remove if not needed to identify speaker or way they speak
- Avoid the adverb tags where ever possible
- Change emotion tags to action tags when possible
- If the dialogue tag has an -ing verb, almost always better as an action tag with a stronger verb set up
- NO preceding “said” tags – change to action only.
- Include contractions and real speech
I know this seems like a crazy-long list. I will say that I’m still learning. The world-building stuff, for example, is a new part of my list and a goal for personal improvement. I’ll also say, that I’m not strict about these rules. I apply them where they make sense and where I feel they improve the writing/story.
I’m always looking to improve my writing, even in the little details. Fellow writers, I’d love to hear anything from your checklist that’s not listed here!
I do want to give full props. Angela James’s self-editing workshop (Before You Hit Send) – I had my list already going (thanks to years of self-publishing and working with my editor/beta reader Wendy) when I took Angela’s workshop. Her material overlapped with much of the above, but it really helped me fine tune my list. It’s an awesome workshop that goes into more detail and covers more topics and gets in depth. My list is just a tip of the ice burg. If you get a chance to take her workshop, I highly recommend you do.
One item that is definitely on my list: Check spelling of all character/place names. Great list, Abigail! Thanks for sharing. 🙂
That’s a good one. I also have been known to change a name after the first draft and find/replace doesn’t always catch them all. Or I’ll decide someone’s eyes are a different color, but not catch every reference. I’ll add both to my list. 😉
Great list, Abigail! I’m definitely going to borrow it from you! I have several words that I overuse, many the same as yours. I would add “just” and “that”. I use them way too much. Something else I check for is repetitiveness. This could be repeating a phrase or a piece of information. I know I hate repetitive statements when I’m reading for enjoyment, so I try to eliminate in my own work.
Great additions! I find I’ll use a different repetitive phrase in different books. I have to be on the lookout for those.
What a wonderful list! I am a “beginning” writer. I only write reviews at this point, but hopefully some day . . . However, I find myself with a developing list much like this one. So far I haven’t written it down, but I do check for redundant words, overused words, proper usage of the word, and a few more your listed. It is fascinating to me how we evolve at something we love to do. Thank you for sharing you process. Hope you don’t mind if I borrow some other items from your checklist to add to mine. Wonderful tool.
Redundant words are a great thing to look for. Particularly adjectives for me. I tend to double and triple those up.
I love that this list has developed over time as my writing has developed. Some of it may even eventually become second nature, and I’ll stop having to look for it. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Best of luck on your writing! 🙂
Really good list, covers a lot of territory and makes you look for the important things.
Thanks! I know I’ll look at this a year from now and think “How did I miss X, Y, Z?” 🙂
Super list, Abigail. I sometimes have trouble remembering eye colors, too.
I had a series were all my characters ended up with green eyes somehow. And I realized recently that I write a lot of blonds. 🙂 I really have to watch it.
One of my author friends has a “no-no” list that is similar to this, only shorter. She knows what her weaknesses are and goes looking for them. Your list is good, I may borrow some of it! I use that whole “feel/felt” thing WAY too much.
Feel free to borrow! 🙂 I get caught with the feel/felt too. Especially when I’m writing my characters with mental powers (I write paranormal romance – lots to describe without a physical thing to do/see).
I saw the words ‘just’ and ‘that’ on the list. My pet peeve word is ‘but’. 🙂 Good list.
I’m bad about the “but” overusage. Lol. I’m also bad about “and then” sigh. Thank goodness for highlighting in find/replace!
Great list! One of my problems is “tense.” (was, had been, did, etc.)
Thanks! I really struggle with tense when I’m doing a flashback or a memory scene. Especially if it’s short.
Great list, great information -Thanks Z. Minor
This is an excellent post with a lot of useful info – thanks! I recently discovered (while reviewing my final WRP galley) that there are certain words I love to repeat. It wasn’t pretty 🙂 I wish I’d seen your list a little earlier.